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Family English on the Allure of the Seas

The Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas: a guided tour

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m pretty sure that you’ve noticed we’ve been cruising on the Allure of the Seas around the Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean challenged the boys to have a really active high-adrenaline cruise and I think we managed it, what with zip-lining, surfing on the Flow-Rider, snorkelling, power rafting and much more.  And while the boys were doing all this, it left us lots of lovely free time for lazing, eating out, sunbathing and a few cocktails too!  Here’s how we got on:

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Heli

How not to miss a flight

As you know, I’m big on building memories.  My motto for this year (my hashtag, even – how New Media of me) is #snapshotsnotstuff (unfortunate, as it has the word ‘snot’ in the middle).  As part of this, I want the boys to grab every opportunity, get out there and see the world, have wonderful new experiences and do new things.  All this came very much into play recently when Sam and his study partner were planning their big A level Media project.  For this, they basically have to produce a documentary.  When throwing around ideas, one of them that kept recurring was a documentary about North Sea helicopter pilots (the job Mr English does).  My reaction was why not?  If we could get the company’s permission, persuade the school, sort out the insurance, etc, etc…   At first, it seemed like it was never going to happen, but Mr English was brilliant, sorting things at his end, and the school were very supportive (imagine giving your very expensive camera to an 18 year old to take on a flight to Aberdeen) and very soon, the filming weekend was upon us.

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Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/159596380519079357/

Moments in time

I’m a huge believer in living life to the full.  I’ve written before about how important I think it is to build memories: snapshots we can look back on and treasure.  Years from now, we’re not going to remember the handbag we spent our birthday money on, or the fabulous jumper we spent a month’s salary to buy – what we will remember is holding hands watching a perfect sunset or an evening laughing with friends.

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The big Christmas gift guide: terrific pressies for teenagers

So next to get the Big Christmas Gift Guide treatment are your gorgeous teenagers.

Onesie

First up are the frankly fantastic All in One Company who hand make their fabulous quality onesies in Northumberland.  They very kindly asked me for Charlie’s measurements and made him a special onesie with his choice of purple camo polar fleece.  He’s absolutely delighted with it because, hey, there’s not another one in the world that’s exactly the same.  You can also give All in One Company gift vouchers so that people can design their very own onesie, and they also have an adorable baby section (check it out – the cuteness!)

ColgateColgate’s new ProClinical A1500 electrical toothbrush is a bit more practical but makes a really cool present (and what teenager doesn’t love looking in the mirror let’s face it).  It’s a really clever gadget with sensors that automatically adjust the speed and cleaning action of the brush depending on how it’s held in the mouth, and cleans using sonic vibration (32,500 strokes per minute!) to really attack that plaque.  It also comes with a spare brush head so more than one person can use it, which is handy.  RRP is £169.99 but it’s on a less than half price offer in Boots at the moment!

SchollScholl have got a really nice ColourPop manicure set which is like the the professional shaping machines you find in salons.  It’s got lots of different filing and shaping heads and is rechargeable too.  The little polishing head is useful if you’re not wearing nail varnish to give your nails a lovely shine.  Nifty.  (RRP £24.99)

Toni & GuyTONI&GUY have got loads of amazing hairdryers and gadgets out in lovely kits this Christmas including Twist and Crimp (RRP £50)  with which apparently – if you’re clever – it’s possible to crimp the underneath of your hair to give it more volume, or go all out 70s and crimp the whole lot, or the Reverse Conical wand for gorgeous casual waves and curls.  We love these as they’re all in beautiful packaging and look really special.

The SnowmanThe Snowman is a Christmas classic (30 years young!) and Build a Bear have bought out a special toy this Christmas, perfect for younger teens with a soft spot for film.   He retails at £18 and is actually really gorgeous – you can buy him online or go into a Build a Bear store for the full stuffing experience!  There’ll be a few adults that would rather like him too, we think!

Diva & Me

Excuse the weird ear-selfie, but if you’re looking for beautiful, unique jeweller – for teenagers or anyone else, frankly – look no further than lovely Diva & Me who sent me these gorgeous 14k gold opalite earrings which literally change colour depending on the light – anything from the darkest purple to very light, almost translucent violet. The gold setting is a delicate ‘hand crocheted’ design – have a look at it close up on the website, it’s absolutely amazing.  I adore them, and I’m really not a jewellery person.

LifeproofLifeproof do AMAZING iPad and iPhone cases that make them completely waterproof, shockproof and even mudproof, rendering their gadget pretty much indestructible.  Once sealed (it does take a bit of time to fit, plus you have to test it, but all the instructions are in the box and the test kit is enclosed),  it is shock proof from two metres with an IP level of 68, whatever that is, and is so waterproof it can actualy be used as an underwater camera.  Brilliant.

Stocking filler wise, I’m always keen to keep away from any sort of useless plastic crap that will be broken by Boxing Day, so we concentrate on anything yummy or useful.  The boys get through tons of the Lynx shower gel and shampoo, especially the Apollo scent, so these are always a winner.  We love all the Cadbury Christmas chocolate, especially the Winter Wonderland bar. Yum! and Kleenex‘s lovely Winter Originals Christmas pocket tissue packs are cute and handy too.

Kleenex Winter Originals

English Mum Christmas

Hell and hilarity: the first month with our new puppy

Lyra asleep

So I guess we’ve now had Lyra for about a month – I think we got her on 26th October.  And whereas before we were barely functioning and bleary eyed, things have really settled down.  My Disreputable Dad and his wife are thinking of getting a puppy and I think I probably put them off with my tales of piddles on the carpet and early mornings, but honestly, I’m really feeling like we’ve made progress.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you HAVE to be firm.  It upset me when I popped her in her crate so that I could get on with something, but after a while she settles and especially if she’s got a chew or a kong with a few bits of cheese in, she’s mostly happy in there for an hour while I crack on with cleaning or whatever.  In the evening, she wanders into the crate and settles down without even being asked.

We’re still working on ear and nose biting.  It’s not in anger, more in a licky, excited ‘I LOVE YOU WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN I MISSED YOU! kind of way…

Welcome home Charlie

House training is bloody hard, and there’s nothing you can do except watch the pup like a hawk and take her out a lot.  She’s a clever girl and very eager to please so she’s starting to pick up on the fact that if she ‘goes’ in the garden, she gets cuddles and treats, but in the house she gets ignored and people get all huffy and stomp around with bowls of water and sponges.  We’re three days since our last accident, so we’re definitely getting there!

I’ve started on recall training.  I’ve been using a long training lead and calling her back to me, giving her loads of praise and treats, but I’ve been told it’s best to move it on as soon as possible.  There’s a small area of woods near where I live and I had a good look round to make sure it was pretty well enclosed.  I grabbed a bag full of the smelliest most yummy treats and took a big deep breath and let her off the lead.  She had a bit of a wander and came back to me every time I called.  The I panicked and put her back on the lead.  Still, it’s a start.

But the good stuff, oh the good stuff is magic.  Charlie was away at Vans Warped Tour this weekend and Sam was at his girlfriend’s, and she was wonderful company – we wandered through the woods, snuggled on the sofa and even watched X Factor together (I may have used the sentence ‘yes, I just said that to the dog’ in response to someone on Twitter).  She’s already learned that if someone’s eating, she’s not allowed to have any (she sits very close to me and grumbles), and when you tell her off (her favourite naughty trick is bringing me a filthy welly and dropping it next to me on the sofa) she goes all silly and bouncy and occasionally answers back.  She really is delightful, even when she’s being a massive pain.

Here’s my view from last night.  Whippet bum, eh? Delightful.

Lyra bum

 

James’ birthday double chocolate cheesecake

Chocolate cheesecake This week, one of Charlie’s best buddies, James, turns 16.  They’ve known each other forever, well, since they started school, and James just feels like one of the family, basically.  He had a Halloween party yesterday (his poor Mum) and they also went up to Wembley to watch the Jags vs 49ers American football game too (which was amazing, apparently – ‘apart from the streaker. Legend’).

I promised to make him a double chocolate cheesecake (we class the chocolate in the digestives as the second chocolate – probably slightly tenuous, but hey), and even though it’s not officially his birthday yet, we let him blow out the candle.  We’re good like that.

Double Chocolate Cheesecake

100g salted butter

300g pack of dark chocolate digestives

500g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

200ml whipping cream

200g good quality dark chocolate

Cream cheese and icing sugar

 

So warm the butter in a small saucepan until it’s just melted and in the meantime whizz up the digestives, or if you don’t have a processor, just put them in a plastic bag and whack them with a rolling pin.  Stir the butter into the biscuits then press into the bottom of a springform tin (you’ll never get the bugger out otherwise) and leave to cool.

Now, melt the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of water (don’t let the bowl touch the water), turning the pan off once the water boils.  Put the cream cheese in a bowl, beat it until smooth then beat in the icing sugar.

Now, and this is important, you must wait for the chocolate to cool back to room temperature.  Wait until it feels the same temperature as your finger when you dip it in.   While you’re waiting, whip the cream.

Add the cooled chocolate to the cream cheese and icing sugar.  Stir it in until the colour is uniform, then fold in the cream gently with a metal spoon so you don’t lose all the air you’ve incorporated.  Smooth the mixture over the prepared base.

And that’s it. Just let it set in the fridge.  I decorated mine with a bit of melted chocolate (excuse the rubbish photo – there was a bit of hilarity), but you can add whatever topping you like: grated chocolate, maltesers, raspberries, even a cheeky layer of chocolate ganache.

Happy birthday James.  Sweet 16! xx

Chocolate cheesecake

 

 

Considering a Disney Cruise with teenagers? Here are my top tips!

The last night on deck

So as you know, I’m a huge Disney fan.  I adore Minnie Mouse, regularly weep over my ancient Beauty and the Beast DVD and could walk you around Walt Disney World blindfolded telling you all about my favourite rides.  I love the films, the characters, the parks, the food (Disney dining is second to none, but cupcakes are my speciality – ask me anything).  The boys have grown up with Hercules, Toy Story, Stitch and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Disney has been a part of all our lives for as long as we can all remember.

This summer we were ridiculously excited to be invited for an amazing trip aboard the Disney Magic as it cruised around the Mediterranean for one of the last times before heading to dry dock for a spectacular new makeover and with an 18 year old and a 15 year old in tow, I was interested to see how we’d get on.

Let’s be clear: there are as many different types of teens as there are holidays.  You’ve got your adventurous ones, your quiet ones, your sociable ones, your ‘not talk to anyone at all’ ones…  So what’s the best way to choose a holiday that will suit your teenagers AND the rest of you?

1. Involve them in the choice of holiday

As I write about travel, we tend to go on holiday a lot.  My teenagers have been on all sorts of trips but the ones that are the best received are always the ones where they’ve had some choice in the matter.  Make it a treat: head out for a burger (this is our standard meeting place as it guarantees at least a few minutes of silence where I can get my point across) and flump a big pile of brochures on the table (obviously you can tip the odds in your favour by adding in your favourites).  Arguing will no doubt ensue, but you’ll also be able to gather who wants what from a holiday.

2. Teenagers need freedom

Cruises are perfect for families.  Think about it: there’s buckets of fun for the little ones, plus the teenagers can’t really wander off and there are a gazillion activities for them to do.  You can stay by the pool, head to the beach or sightsee on shore days, watch the latest Disney films (either on the amazing ‘Tunnel Vision’, an outdoor screen, or in a proper cinema), catch a show (the shows are INCREDIBLE – I always cry), play a game of basketball or table tennis… a Disney cruise is like 10 holidays in one and their kids’ clubs are amazing.

3. Which brings me to a word about kids’ clubs

Teen Clubs are really hard to get right.  It helps if the age groups are well thought out (young teens and old teens is the best split: no 17 year old wants their style cramped by a 13 year old) and the leadership needs to be friendly and non-patronising.  ‘Teen disco’ tends to strike fear into the heart of any teenager, but generally by day four or five they’ll be there, hanging about looking like they don’t really want to be there, but actually enjoying themselves.  By day seven, they’ll be cruising around in a huge pack, annoying everyone.  Teen clubs also allow them more access to the facilities: Charlie wanted to go into the gym, but it’s over 18s only.  Turns out the teen club organise group visits to the gym.  Result: happy Charlie.

4. Think outside the box

Our Disney Magic cruise took us to Spain, Italy and France, but maybe you fancy going further afield, or you’ve ‘done’ Rome already?  No problem.  Disney Cruises go to the most amazing places: cruise the Caribbean, or swoosh along the California coastline.  Next on my list?  Alaska!

5. Compromise compromise and compromise a bit more

Want to schlep around Pompeii on your shore day but have kids who want to lie by the pool plugged in to their iPhones?  It’s all about the compromise.  There are some absolutely amazing shore excursions – you don’t have to spend hours in a coach or traipsing round cathedrals.  Let them choose what they want to do – I wanted to see Monaco, so we chose a trip with a visit to the Top Car Museum in Monte Carlo, which suited all of us.  Also, maybe consider splitting up.  We find this works well: I might head off on a trip with one, leaving Dad slobbing on the deck with the other.

6. City breaks can be really cool

We weren’t looking forward to our last day in Barcelona.  We were disembarking at 9am and had all day to kill before our evening flight.  We were lucky to team up with friends we’d made who knew it inside out and showed us around some really cool places.   It turned out to be one of our favourite days.

7. Disney is part of everyone’s past

Some of our favourite moments were really unexpected.  We bumped into Stitch – a huge favourite from their childhood, and one evening we sat and watched Hercules up on the deck, singing along to our favourite songs from the film and reminiscing about when it was their favourite film (‘nice catch, jerkules!’).  Lovely moments to share.

8. Consider doubling up

Know another family with kids a similar age? Think about holidaying together.  Not only is it fun to have a Disney adventure with friends, but it’s a lot easier walking into that kids’ club on the first day if they’re doing it with someone they know.  It also means that you have more adults to mingle with too!

Chas pirate

9. Everybody loves the pirate party

Trust me: nobody is ever too old for pirate night.  Everyone on the ship dresses up as pirates (whole families bring their costumes with them), there are pirate themed dinners and then a massive party on the deck afterwards, with the best firework display ever and then a DJ until the early hours.  There is nothing better than dancing to amazing tunes out on the deck at ridiculous o’clock in the morning under the biggest sky full of stars you ever saw.

10. Disney’s for everyone

Think Disney’s just for young ones? Think again.  One of my happiest moments after we came back from the cruise was overhearing Sam talking to a friend describing the cruise: ‘I’m going every year if I can, mate, you can’t beat Disney’.  Nothing makes me happier than to know I’ve passed my love of everything Disney onto my children.

 

7-night Disney Magic Mediterranean Cruise from £949 per adult and £699 per child.  Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights onboard Disney Magic from Barcelona, calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France), Pisa, Rome and Naples, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers. Prices are per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis. Based on a departure on 30 August 2014. Offer is subject to availability and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.

In which I inform the school that tie shredding boy needs a break

The lettuce protest

The lettuce protest

He’s a bit of a wag is The Dude.  Not in a bad way.  Oh no, I’m far too scary a parent to allow anything like that.  I do, however, feel that we shouldn’t crush every bit of individuality and personality out of our children.  I want my children to be respectful, kind and considerate, but we do have a bit of a giggle at home, and sometimes there’s a bit of banter and the odd swear, but that’s fine by me too.  On the left, I present his recent protest at being asked to eat lettuce. He hates lettuce.

Since returning to school after half term, Charlie’s been on ‘lockdown’. This is basically because this particular school moves the kids up into their new school years after the May half term.  So Chas is now in year 11.  This year is special because it’s their GCSE year.  They wear a different coloured shirt and tie and are allowed more freedom, including the right to leave the school at lunchtime.  Unfortunately, since the now infamous ‘tie shredding incident‘, his punishment, along with his friends, was to have this freedom rescinded for two whole weeks.  It’s actually a pretty great punishment.  Allow the whole of the school year to leave the premises at lunchtime, leaving the ‘naughty’ ones behind to earn their freedom again? I get that.  I totally do.

Trouble is, the policing of this ‘lockdown’ is all wrong.  On the first day he came back looking less than happy.  I assumed it was the enforced loss of freedom and didn’t say too much.  Actions have consequences, etc and I fully support the school’s right to give punishment where it’s due.  On the second day, I actually asked what was up, and it turned out that the lockdown is being enforced by them having to report to their house office EVERY TEN MINUTES.  Yup, you read that right.  Wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, they have to walk all the way back to a specific office to report every ten minutes.

This is all wrong.  Removing a privilege if they misbehave? Totally fine.  Removing their freedom and their right to a break at lunchtime, when they’re studying hard for GCSEs and working hard in class?  Wrong.  Ten minutes is not even enough time to queue up in the canteen and eat. Had he eaten?  No.  I was fuming.

I sent one of my emails.  I kept it firm.  I expect Charlie to be allowed a proper break to go eat, drink, read a book, revise, muck about, play football… whatever. Just as you, as a teacher, are allowed one.

The reply was a bit sarky: ‘if Charlie’s that keen on revising, he can always go to the library, where the staff there will record his presence’.  Oh I didn’t like that.  I didn’t like that one bit.

My reply, I feel, was firm but fair: ‘it’s not about revision. It’s about giving the kid a break, not making him perform like a trained chimp for the entire lunch period.’

That’s me off the school Christmas list, then.

Paw teddies, cat beards, and losing an eye to an angry Ninja

My friends all find it hilarious that I live with a human-hating cat.  Our Ninja’s not a people person, bless her.  She’s never happier than when she’s gnawing on an unsuspecting human, and takes great pleasure at turning from purry to assassin by the time you’ve stroked half way down her back and realised you’ve made a big mistake.

Much hilarity, then, was caused by the photo below from The Poke.  A cute little teddy bear, drawn on a kitty’s cute little pink paw.  ‘Go on’, said my friend Laura, ‘I dare you.

So I did what any self respecting angry Ninja cat owner would do, and forced my children to do it.  First up is Sam, with a very valiant attempt at the ‘paw teddy’.

Next up, Kerry found some awesome ‘cat beards‘ on buzzfeed.com.  ‘Reckon Ninja will let you get close enough?’, she asked.

Nope, not a chance, so again I enlisted a willing sidekick (okay, I forced Charlie).  This time, he nearly lost an eye, but succeeded in producing a darned fine cat beard.

The result of this, though, is an incredibly angry Ninja, who doesn’t like cuddles OR posing for photos (or frankly being touched or annoyed in any way) and is now roaming the house in an angry fashion, waiting for someone to attack.

We’re all sleeping with one eye open tonight, then…

Paw teddy

‘Er, Mum? The exam’s not today…’

God this week has been mental.  This one came with the added stress of it being Sam’s first A level exam week. Sunday was a bit frantic as he had to work (HOW do these kids do it?  Studying and revising, learning to drive, holding down a part-time job AND attempting a decent social life too?) and didn’t feel that he’d got much revision in.  The Dude was knackered after an all-nighter at a friend’s house the night before, so we’d all hit the sack pretty early.

The highlights of my week included:

Ninja attempting to eat my toe through the 13 tog duvet. Pretty painful, but a very effective alarm clock:

The foot bitey thing


Being traumatised on the school run
  (Sam’s now insured on my car at vast expense and regularly TERRIFIES me by driving me to school):

‘Sweetheart, you need to come in a bit towards the kerb – you’re kind of in the middle of the road’

‘I DO NOT! STOP FLAPPING!’

Call from Sam: ‘erm, we got the date wrong on the calendar.  The exam is tomorrow’.  I guess all I can take from this is that 1) our calendar system is wildly inefficient and 2) thank goodness we got it wrong that way round and hadn’t missed it completely.  Honestly, how we all function I’ll never know.

Call from school: did you know that if you type a rude word into a school computer it’s automatically screenshotted and a copy taken to send to parents?  No?  Neither did The Dude.  The word was ‘dildo’ if you’re interested.  The explanation?  ‘I was trying out find and replace, so I set it to find every time in my coursework that it said ‘to’ and replace it with ‘dildo’. Ohhhh.  That’s okay then.

Getting home and unloading the shopping: placing the wine in the garage fridge  (a really nice bottle of rosé that has been recommended to me – Petit Rimauresq if you must know – and that I was looking forward to sharing with the Hubby) when I realised (or more accurately smelt) that I had forgotten about the mouldy cucumber that had been languishing there since Sam’s 18th and that had leaked all into the bottom of the fridge.  As I turned to fetch a cloth I lost grip of the wine, tried to break its fall with my knee, then watched helplessly as it smashed all over the floor.  I didn’t know whether to cry over my spilt wine or my bruised knee.  Finding no carpet cleaner and, hey, as it’s only a scrappy bit in the garage, I mopped it with a bucketful of hot water to which I’d added a Bold Liquitab.  There was swearing.

Another call from school: this time involving the illicit shredding of a school tie in the house office shredder.  Innocent faces all round.

And so it goes on really…  next will be better right?  RIGHT?

 

 

 

The triple layer Curly Wurly chocolate mousse cake and Sam’s 18th

WHAT. A. DAY.

We started early, constructing an epic chocolate layer cake. It was loosely based on Charlie’s birthday cake, but we dispensed with the top layer and added a layer of whipped cream and a thick layer of crumbled Flakes. Oh, and of course those Curly Wurlys – painstakingly cut to size and applied by the birthday boy himself.

Painstaking Curly Wurly application

Here’s how to make it:

Triple Layer Curly Wurly Chocolate Mousse Cake

For the flourless chocolate cake

Line an 8” high sided loose-bottomed tin with greaseproof paper, and give it a squirt of cake-release spray for good measure if you want.  Remember you’re going to add the layers so line the sides quite high. Preheat the oven to 160/gas 3.

125g dark chocolate

60g butter

3 large free range eggs, separated

125g soft brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over some hot water. As soon as the water starts to bubble, turn it off and let the butter and chocolate melt gently together.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until they’re really firm.

When the butter and chocolate are melted, stir in the brown sugar, the vanilla extract and the egg yolks, then gently fold in the whisked egg whites.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for about half an hour or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Leave to cool.  It will sink as it cools.

For the chocolate mousse

You only need a thin (ish) layer of mousse. I made my first layer far too thick, so I’ve halved the quantities here.

250ml double cream

300g dark chocolate

3 eggs, separated

So just pop the double cream in a saucepan and break in the chocolate.  Put it on a low heat and as soon as the cream is warm enough to melt the chocolate, turn the heat off, continuing to stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Leave to cool a little while you whisk the egg whites. Do check that the cream/chocolate mixture is cool enough (it needs to be lukewarm otherwise it will scramble the eggs) before mixing in the egg yolk.

Then just fold in the whites, again take your time and wait until everything is a uniform colour. Pour the mousse on top of the chocolate cake layer and put in the fridge to set.

To decorate with Curly Wurlys (or any chocolate bar, frankly)

You’ll need to make up a bit of ganache ‘glue’.  I just melted about 100g of dark chocolate in a saucepan over some simmering water, then added a splosh of cream and stirred until it was thick.  Spread with a pallet knife around the edge of the cake, cut the Curly Wurlys to fit, then press them on, making sure the cut ends are at the bottom. You might need to use a half piece just to close up the last gap.  Back in the fridge again to set.

Just before serving, whip some double cream and pipe, or spoon, over the mousse.  Cover with a layer of crumbled up Flakes.

So with the cake ready and lots of booze in the fridge, it was off to Rogue Racing in Aylesbury with ten of Sam’s friends for an epic karting session.  It really is immensely good fun – noisy, hot and frantic – we had an AMAZING time and I can highly recommend it.  You end up getting so into it – my voice was hoarse from all the shouting and there were some surprise aggressive drivers (I’m looking at you Mickey and Amy!).  Here’s the birthday boy:

The birthday boy on the track

and here’s the gang after the karting:

The gang at Rogue Racing

Back to English Towers, then, we ordered six massive XXL pizzas and were joined by family and friends for an epic party.  The hubby made a surprise appearance (he was supposed to miss the party due to a late duty time), making us all cry, my big bro brought some amazing wine and some fabulous champagne too, the Disreputable One popped in for a drink, and we laughed, danced, drank and giggled (mostly me, that bit) until 2am, eventually leaving teenagers sleeping all over the place and heading to bed.

What a fabulous day.  And what lovely friends the boy has. This is my favourite pic of the boy, beaming, mouth full of pizza, surrounded by all his mates, and photobombed by his mate Marshy.  Happy birthday Sam xx

Photobomb

 

 

Turning 18: future plans (or not), driving and the all-important party

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle

Today our Sam, the Mad Professor, turns 18.  I’m just not sure how I feel, to be honest.  Sure, I’m immensely proud of him: he’s a good kid: kind and funny (he makes us all cry with laughter), thoughtful, a brilliant big brother (they play American Football together and have an increasingly blended mix of friends – I love this), a caring boyfriend (his girlfriend is adorable), ridiculously disorganised (sleeps through his alarm every single morning and only serious screeching gets him out of bed), but driven when he needs to be.  He’s doing well at school (we got a letter over Easter from the sixth form team telling us how great he’s doing and how much he’s improved) and he’s holding down a part-time job as a lifeguard at the local sports centre as well as studying hard for exams.  But GOD I FEEL OLD!

He’s driving now.  Doing well in his lessons and won’t be long before he takes his test.  He’s loving his Media A level the best, but doesn’t really know what he wants to do.  Maybe go into the Navy and be a pilot like his Dad, but maybe go on to University and do a media course.  Either way is fine by me.  I just want him to be happy.

We’ve always got on well.  A neighbour recently confided how stressful it is having teenagers in the house.  I nodded agreement but honestly, honestly?  Mine are lovely 90% of the time.  Of course we fight – our most recent one was about how many teenagers he’s having over for his party on Friday night – but mostly we rub along fine.  And neither of my boys has turned into Kevin the Teenager – a blessing for which I’ll be eternally grateful.  I never was a particularly brilliant parent – especially with babies, but now they’re grown up I find it much easier.

He was the most brilliant best man at his Grandad’s wedding recently. I had SO many people come up to me, telling me that I should be proud of my boys.  I really was.  They were polite, charming, and looked pretty darned swag in their suits too.

For his birthday, he’s having a go-karting tournament with ten of his friends at a local track.  He didn’t want a present – who needs gold watches or silver tankards when you can blast around a track with all your mates for a pressie?  I totally agree.  I’m planning a surprise present too: insuring him on my car.

Afterwards, everyone’s coming back to our house for drinks and takeaway pizza.  He’s worn me down by using a stealth approach to add people to the guest list.  ‘Mum, can I invite one more person to the party?’  ‘Sure you can’.  Then two days later – ‘oh god, I forgot two people that I really want to be there…’ etc.  I’m not a big party person, and not fond of drunk people either, so this party doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.  However, after a chat and a bit of compromising on both sides, I think we’ve agreed on a number that suits both of us.  He knows that his Dad will be throwing out any dodgy drunk ones, so I’m sure everything will be fine.

Just ask me again on Saturday morning.

A triple layer chocolate mousse cake for the Dude’s birthday

Triple layer chocolate mousse cake

Triple layer chocolate mousse cake

I know I’m always complaining about being old but blimey, my youngest was 15 yesterday. The Dude is mahoosive and has turned into a handsome, kind and funny teenager who is American Football mad and a bit of a gym obsessive. We’re all immensely proud of him.

As is the tradition at English Towers, he’s been allowed to choose the birthday cakeage. Usually this means they choose the most difficult thing they possibly can and today is no exception. Flicking through my cakey Pinterest pins, the birthday boy opted for a bloody enormous triple layer chocolate mousse cake, but without the white chocolate layer. A mousse cake should be soft and melty, so I decided on a lovely soft flourless chocolate cake as a base layer, then topped with a dark chocolate mousse and then a milk chocolate one. Simples.

One word of warning: sometimes mousse takes a while to set. If you need this cake in the evening, make it in the morning or the night before. If desperation sets in, a blast in the freezer for a half hour will help it along. As you can see from mine, the top layer wasn’t quite set and started to collapse – by the time we’d lit the candles, the Maltesers were sliding down the side of the cake. No matter, we just scoffed it really quick.

For the flourless chocolate cake

This is an easy cake to make and makes a great pudding served with whipped cream. It WILL sink in the middle, but when topped with the mousses of course this doesn’t matter.

As I was trying to build up height I used a smallish (8”) high sided loose-bottomed tin, with the sides lined with cut-to-fit silicone baking sheet. Remember you’re going to add the mousse layers so line the sides quite high. Preheat the oven to 160/gas 3.

125g dark chocolate

60g butter

3 large free range eggs, separated

125g soft brown sugar

So melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over some hot water. As soon as the water starts to bubble, turn it off and let the butter and chocolate melt gently together.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until they’re really firm.

When the butter and chocolate are melted, stir in the brown sugar, the vanilla extract and the egg yolks, then gently fold in the whisked egg whites.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for about half an hour or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Leave to cool.

Weighing out the chocolate

Weighing out the chocolate

Just thought I’d slip in a pic of my new scales here – I love them. You can find them on Amazon – they’re called Epicurean by Ozeri. Rather lush aren’t they?

For the mousse layers

You only need a thin (ish) layer of mousse. I made my first layer far too thick, so I’ve halved the quantities here.

125ml double cream

150g dark chocolate

2 eggs, separated

So just pop the double cream in a saucepan and break in the chocolate. Put it on a low heat and as soon as the cream is warm enough to melt the chocolate, turn the heat off, continuing to stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Leave to cool a little while you whisk the egg whites. Do check that the cream/chocolate mixture is cool enough (it needs to be lukewarm otherwise it will scramble the eggs) before mixing in the egg yolk.

Then just fold in the whites, again take your time and wait until everything is a uniform colour. Pour the mousse on top of the chocolate cake layer and return to the fridge.

When this layer is set, make another batch of mousse with milk chocolate. Pour VERY gently over the first mousse and allow to set.

To serve, you need to be VERY careful – firstly make sure it’s properly set (ahem) and then balance it on something solid and slowly push the tin down. Decorate if you want, or just ram it into your face.

Happy birthday, Chas. We love you loads xx

Charlie with his cake

Charlie with his cake

 

 

The Disreputable One’s wedding: speeches, dancing and the cupcake challenge

Groom and Best ManYesterday was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding.  It started badly, with me still running around covered in icing an hour before we were supposed to leave (I stupidly offered to make them cupcake towers) and Dad arriving to pick the boys up for the church with not one, but both boys still in their pants.

In the ensuing panic, people were jabbed with buttonhole pins, ties were tied and retied, tempers were lost, handkerchiefs were jammed into suit pockets willy nilly and everyone piled into the car still pink faced and sweary.  Luckily, by the time we all got to the church, we’d calmed down a bit.

Cupcake tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was really pleased with my dress from Monsoon.  AND after a bit of faffing, I went with the red lipstick in the end (this decision was not helped by my sons who, when I tried it on, cried with laughter), but actually I felt quite glamorous, although I’m not sure how people wear lipstick every day.  It’s kind of like walking around knowing you’ve got jam spread around your lips and you’re not allowed to lick it off.  Here’s a little car selfie:

Car selfie

The service was very nice. My niece wasn’t feeling well so I had to step in and do a reading (my reading included the term ‘brothers and sisters’ – I was tempted to do it in an evangelical style: BRUTHAS AND SISTAS!’, but decided against it) and after a small discussion about who had the ring, the Best Man did his duties admirably, even after still being up at midnight the night before swearing over his speech!

De brevren on the dance floorThere was just a small party in the evening.  My sons monopolised the dance floor with some very odd co-ordinated dancing (even Sam’s poor girlfriend was enlisted), and later, there was a resurrection of the ‘cupcake challenge’, first seen at our very own wedding blessing a few years ago.

He’s got his mother’s gob, bless him:

 

The birthday with NO CAKE!

Aw I had such a fab day yesterday.  Despite their Dad’s absence the brevren rallied well – no cards (‘what, you have to buy presents AND cards?’) but they did get me a voucher for a lovely Clarins facial – will look forward to that.  Mahoosive brownie points go to Mr English for the gift of THIS little beauty:

My birthday pressie

My birthday pressie

Isn’t it beautiful?  After pressies it was off to The Akeman in Tring, Hertfordshire which is really lovely: all squishy leather, dark wood and roaring fires.  The kitchen area is open so you can see the chefs at work, and the staff were so friendly.  I had lunch with my gorgeous friend Glam C .  We had Prosecco to celebrate, plus a delicious Mediterranean salad with Halloumi, roasted vegetables, couscous and chickpeas.  Nomnomnom.  The grin on my face says it all, I feel (and look, there’s The Claw – well, I couldn’t leave it at home on my birthday now, could I?):

Birthday Prosecco

Birthday Prosecco

The reason for the salad (I know, right? Not like me at all) was our evening trip to a local pizza place.  We were accompanied by The Prof’s new girlfriend, who I’m proud to say is utterly lovely – very sweet and enormously good fun – we cackled like loons and, after we’d dropped her off, The Dude was heard to utter ‘wow, there is NOTHING wrong with her’.  High praise indeed.  However, it was only as we were getting out of the car that I realised I’d forgotten the cake.  Ah well.  We’ll scoff it today: think of it as unbirthday cake.

Thank you for all your birthday wishes on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  What a perfect day.

Thorpe Park: The Crash Pad, banana theft, frozen pipes and ridin’ with Kat and Alfie

Exploring the empty park in the dark

Exploring the empty park in the dark

It’s my birthday shortly (not a hint, I promise) and although I can remember sunny days, cloudy days and rainy days, I’m pretty sure it’s never snowed before at this time of year.

Yesterday we drove down to Surrey to visit Thorpe Park for the opening party for their new hotel, The Crash Pad, and to experience the new backward twist to The Swarm, their amazing winged roller coaster.  The Death Wish Dude is a coaster nut, so we took him with us as our coaster-tester, along with his friend, James.  The snow was really coming down by 6pm and as we crawled along the M25 at about 20 mph I had visions of us being snowed in and spending the night in the car.

Anyhoo, we made it, and the incredibly friendly Thorpe Park staff made us very welcome. We checked in to our Crash Pad room  and were impressed with what we saw.  Don’t, under any circumstances, expect a hotel room.  The Crash Pad is more like the Yotel in that it really is just a place to lay your head: a double bed, two single bunks, and a small en-suite wet room. That’s it. No floor space, no wandering around room, just a place to crash and go.  Oh, and a word of warning?  The top bunk has no rail.  Do not allow a restless sleeper up there – the Dude came crashing down at around 3am – luckily unhurt!

We thought it would be fab if you have to travel a long way to spend time at Thorpe Park – you can book packages which include two days’ park tickets, one night in the Crash Pad and breakfast included.  There’s also evening entertainment provided and the bar area is lovely.  A fab idea and pretty good value too.  We also thought it would be ace to book an overnight stay during one of the Fright Nights!

In the bar we bumped into Shane Richie, who we’d met at Disneyland Paris when we went for my 40th birthday (you may remember the ‘photograph of the ear‘ debacle). He’s so lovely and we all wandered around the park in a big gang.  Kat (lovely Jessie Wallace) was there too I was a bit starstruck, to be honest, but they’re so down to earth and friendly.  At one stage Shane took over the announcing on one of the rides (then ran away before getting on).

With Shane Richie

Me with lovely Shane Richie, James and the Dude.

We were lucky enough to have access to the park after closing time, and the fellas went on everything, at least twice:

The boys riding Nemesis

Riding Nemesis

There was also the small matter of a stolen banana.  This was absolutely nothing to do with me, but these two shifty-looking characters were caught on CCTV:

Theft of giant banana

Theft of giant banana

 

SWARM is blimmin’ amazing. Hubby and I went on once but the boys rode about five times – both backwards and forwards!

After a fabulous party, with a DJ, entertainment, nibbles and a free mojito bar, we headed to the Crash Pad.  It was really lovely and comfy (bit awkward when one of the kids isn’t yours, but then that’s our fault).  The only problem was when we woke up – no hot water due to frozen pipes.  The staff were amazing again, rushing around and getting us bottles of water, but we decided to head home and save our park tickets for another day.

This really is the perfect place for teenagers.  To be honest, it’s such good value I think I’d probably book a separate room for the teens, then let them loose around the park while we chilled and pootled about a bit more.  The food options are good at Thorpe Park and there are plenty of non-adrenaline-rush things to do too!

And yes, the banana was returned to its rightful place, unharmed.  I promise.

About Crash Pad

Two day packages start from £64pp, including breakfast (based on 4 sharing).  Click here for more info.  The Crash Pad opens 28th March 2013.

 

Can’t work out what your teenager’s on about? Center Parcs rush to your rescue.

Oh this did make me chuckle.  I love Center Parcs and they’ve just gone up about a gazillion times in my estimation by publishing this: a Dictionary of the Teenage Slanguage.  Next time your tame teenager describes something (or indeed someone) as ‘blates dench’, you won’t have to scratch your head or resort to Urban Dictionary (be REALLY careful on there, by the way), you can just refer to this handy guide.

You’re welcome.

Center Parcs UK teenage slang

A chocolate cake of epic proportions for the Prof’s 18th birthday

Sam

Firstly, can I just point out that GOD, I’M REALLY OLD.  My firstborn baby boy – my blue eyed, blonde haired, chatty little charmer – is 18 next month.

I won’t gush on too much, but I’m immensely proud of him.  He’s grown into a bloody lovely, slightly enormous and very gangly fella – funny, kind and still capable of squeezing the life out of his Mum with a single hug.  He has a beautiful and very sweet girlfriend and is working really hard in the sixth form.  For his birthday, we’re taking his whole gang of friends for a big go-karting tournament at Rogue Racing in Aylesbury, then it’s back to our house for drinkies and food.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that generally the birthday person gets to choose what kind of cake they have.  Over the last few years this has manifested itself into a ‘pick the most difficult cake that you possible can to really piss Mum off’ challenge.  There have been requests for Black Forest Gateaux, double chocolate cheesecakes and all sorts of weirdness.  This time, though, I know exactly what kind of cake I want to make him: an enormous, chocolate extravaganza the like of which you’ve never seen before.  It started when my Twitter friend Bee, who lives in Belgium and is a fabulous baker, gave me an amazingly rich and chocolatey bundt cake recipe.  I started thinking how nice it would be layered up – maybe with ganache and possibly some of Nigella’s salted caramel sauce (if you made it thick enough).  And then I saw this picture on Pinterest:

Chocolate cake from Pinterest

 

… and we all got chatting about it on Facebook and then another friend, lovely Caitriona from Wholesome Ireland (incidentally a very good read on eating well on a budget) said ‘ooh, you could use Caramel KitKats’, and our imaginations all got the better of us and soon we were all imagining chocolate cakes of ridiculous proportions covered in all manner of confectionary…

So that’s my germ of an idea – basically, as another friend noted, a tooth-aching stack of sugar requiring a mid-scoff insulin injection.  But hey, you’re only 18 once, right?  What do you think?

The Photo Gallery: Boys

One of my best buddies, the lovely Tara, runs an online photo gallery every week over at Sticky Fingers.  People from all over the world enter photos into the gallery every week to a specific theme.  This week, the theme is ‘boys’.  Well, I had to, didn’t I?

They make me laugh until I cry (at a recent parents’ evening, one of Charlie’s teachers said: ‘I love him.  I could strangle him occasionally, but I love him’), give fabulous hugs, eat vast amounts of food, use vast amounts of hot water, send me tweets that say ‘you are a poo’, make me worry about them constantly (you have to let them go…) and always, always make me proud.  They’re kind, thoughtful, frustrating, messy, always late (Sam!), weirdly nocturnal but always fabulous.

Ladies and gentlespoons, I give you: my boys (with their long-suffering Dad):

The Dude, The Prof and The Daddy.

 

A cunning plan: the Death Wish Dude’s strategy for parents’ evening

Trying on suitsDuring a recent shopping trip to find him a suit for my Disreputable Dad’s upcoming wedding (the girl in the shop was rather taken with my handsome boy and I was laughing as she practically climbed into the changing room with him), we were discussing parents’ evening, which is fast approaching.  And while he’s doing well at school, I’m under no illusion that my youngest enormous offspring is any sort of an angel.  I did ask him, somewhat nervously, what I was to expect at parents’ evening.

He’s obviously been giving it considerable thought: ‘well I’m going to skip the RE teacher completely, then start you with my biology teacher, Miss C, who hates us all… then I’m going to make sure the appointments are in the order of how well I’m doing and ending at my drama teacher Mr G, who is a legend and who absolutely loves me.  By the time he’s finished, you’ll waft out of the door and won’t even remember the others.

Then I thought we could go to Tesco and buy you some wine’.